GATLINBURG, Tenn. — Despite countrywide outrage that followed a viral video of a man confronting a momma bear and her three cubs at Cades Cove, park officials say they are still fielding reports of visitors who continue to disturb wildlife.
Bill Stiver is a supervisory wildlife biologist at Great Smoky Mountain National Park and said he personally fielded multiple complaints from concerned parkgoers about dangerous animal encounters even since the video went viral.
"That's not the first time that's happened," he told 10News. "I had a lady come into my office this week because she's seen that kind of thing...people willfully approaching wildlife in the cove fairly often."
The veteran biologist said just a day after the video made rounds online, bear experts as far as Alaska and Florida messaged him to express their dismay at how brazen the man’s actions were.
"I have had other reports in that same week. I had a visitor report another visitor throwing french fries to a bear," Stiver said.
Visitors confronting wildlife in their natural habitat is a problem that unfortunately is not unique to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Frightening footage of a 9-year-old child being tossed in the air by a bison in Yellowstone National Park made rounds online just two days ago, and wildlife officials had to sing their seemingly annual tune.
Don't approach wildlife.
"You know, part of the challenge for us is being everywhere all the time being able to keep that under control," Stiver said. "It's difficult."
And while many who watched the video cannot believe what the man did, problematic encounters with wildlife can happen even with the most well-meaning park-goer.
Even ones who don't think they are part of the problem.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park regulations indicate you cannot willfully approach within 50 yards away from bear or elk. But research shows that as the Tennessee black bear population experiences a surge, so too does attendance at The Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
That makes the definition of willingly approach a little murkier.
"Mixing all those bears and all those people, we're going to have more human-bear interactions and conflicts," Stiver said.
Disrupting an animal's natural behavior doesn't have to be as blatant as confronting a momma bear with cubs or tossing french fries to a bear. In many instances, a disturbance can be as innocent as a glance.
"If people are approaching a deer or an elk and it lifts its head up, you've changed its behavior," Stiver said.
In the Smokies, animals are largely habituated to the presence of humans. That means they are comfortable to the presence of humans but maintain a natural safe distance away. So while tossing food to a seemingly hungry bear may seem magnanimous, it takes that comfort to dangerous levels.
The bear now gets a food reward for coming close to humans.
"That's changing the behavior of that animal of one you can safely view to one that's searching for food," said Stiver. "Those behaviors can escalate over time."
And when bear behavior escalates to dangerous levels, officials have to put it down.
WILL THE MOMMA BEAR BE EUTHANIZED?
Unofficially, no. Park officials don't believe they will have reason to euthanize the momma bear for her actions that day.
In this case, officials saw evidence that the bear reacted defensively. And Stiver said that plays a key role when officials are evaluating whether to euthanize a bear or not. If at some point in the future she acted offensively, park officials would have to reassess her situation.
He added that it's a hard number to gauge exactly, but estimates that during his 29-year career, the number of bears that have to be put down averages twelve a year.
Oftentimes, those are bears that are on the offense, ones whose behavior puts them in the path of humans by their own determination.
But they, like many who watched the video, saw a mom protecting her kids.
"The responsible thing would have been to back off and give the bears space to get from one side of the road to the other because that's all the bear was trying to do."
GAWK AND BEAR IT
Even if you think you're doing the right thing by retreating to your car when a bear approaches, it might need even more space.
Especially at Cades Coves, where traffic backups are a daily occurrence along the scenic one-way route, wildlife experts notice signs of severe stress in bears when they try to cross traffic but cannot.
"We see this a lot and it's one of the frustrations. When a bear is trying to get across the road or across a trail, you may have fifty people blocking its way," Stiver said. "They don't really see what the bear's trying to do."
As the number one most visited national park in the country, becoming entrapped by gawking tourists in cars is a common problem bears face.
"Once near Laurel Falls, [a bear] was on a steep embankment, it was just standing there. And everybody was in the road blocking its path. So I stopped my personal car, backed everyone up," Stiver said. "The bear was definitely stressed."
And yet for all the grief we cause when venturing into their home, Stiver said bears tend to be patient with us. While people on social media were shocked to see the man was not killed or severely injured by the bear, Stiver was not surprised that he walked away from the encounter unharmed.
"Bears are pretty good at sending a message without hurting you," Stiver said. "That's their normal defensive response. They bluff charge..huff puff. That's them telling you you're too close."
But Stiver hopes the video will now empower other visitors to tell each other when they're getting to close.
"Maybe people will see it and tell other visitors, hey remember that guy who got too close to that bear?" Stiver said. "And hopefully they'll back off."